Hong Kong's MICE caterers are rising to new challenges, drawing up inventive menus in response to clients' varied demands. And customers now have an even greater choice as ambitious start-ups are challenging entrenched operations with fresh ideas and concepts, as well as coming up with creative solutions to making the best of Hong Kong's more awkward venues.
Typical of this new breed is Zebratasty, which started off as a sandwich and salad delivery business in Kowloon Bay in 2013.
"We have gradually evolved into a catering company serving medium- to high-end corporate clients such as banks, law firms, accountants and business," says sales manager Thomas Lam.
"In January, we catered for the players of the international cricket series between Hong Kong and Scotland, which was played over eight days, but as we had the rainiest January in over 100 years, this meant the matches could only proceed on five days.
"We had to have marquees set up at the ground, and all the food was prepared and cooked in our kitchen before being transported in insulated carriers to maintain temperature and hygiene, and then it was served on chafers."
Zebratasty also had to pay attention to special dietary requirements, meaning lots of carbs and chicken for the Scotland team, and vegetarian dishes and curry for some of the Hong Kong players.
Lam adds: "In terms of recent trends, we get some inquiries about organic-only or gluten-free lunches, and we are getting asked a lot more nowadays about hiring a private chef to cook at customers' residences or offices.
"Over the past couple of years, a number of food delivery companies have set up shop in Hong Kong, and they are now turning their focus to corporate catering. With smaller restaurants now also able to provide catering services in collaboration with these delivery companies, I can only see increasing competition, and customers looking for more variety and creativity in the menu."
Unusual menu items seem to be becoming the rule rather than the exception, according to Taryne Hall, who runs Relish Kitchen. "We put the fun back into entertaining with healthy options and our fresh, nutritious recipes," she says.
"Fresh fruits and vegetables have always been important to Relish, and with the increasing trend for vegetarian options, it fits well with our menu of healthy salads and canapes.
"Recently, we were involved in the promotion of insect flour, making waffles from cricket flour and topping them with Nutella and bananas. Insects are more sustainable than livestock and an excellent source of protein.
When it comes to Relish's catering services, Hall says: "For many events, we walk into uncharted territory - be it on a boat, an art gallery, in a corporate cubicle, or a fashion store opening where we have to make use of a stairwell. We take on the most awkward spaces as a challenge, and our chefs put extra effort into the menu planning so it is presented seamlessly for the client and the guests. Italian-themed fashion events, Halloween escapades and nautical-themed parties are all part of what we deliver."
Another well-known MICE catering company, Maidan, is also seeing a definite trend towards healthy eating. "More clients have started to ask for healthy options - light on oil, more veggies, gluten-free, low carbs, and fruit rather than cakes as desserts," says Katherine Xiao, Maidan's marketing manager.
One of Hong Kong's veteran caterers, Shamrock, has been in the MICE catering business since 1994 and over the years has served an impressive roster of corporate clients including Goldman Sachs, the University of Hong Kong, Jones Lang La Salle, Sun Hung Kai Properties, and Barclays Capital Asia.
"For example, Shamrock was the official caterer for the Hong Kong Tennis Open in 2014, responsible for all the players as well as VIP hospitality," says Mark Dineley, Shamrock's managing director. "We had to set up a full on-site kitchen, catering to more than 1,000 guests per day for five days, which was very testing."
Shamrock can also call on a select coterie of unusual venues around Hong Kong to host MICE events, including Cliftons Central in the heart of the city, which is perched on top of 33 Queen's Road Central with arresting views of Victoria Harbour.
Caption: ; ; Zebratasty evolved from a sandwich and salad delivery business into a catering company.; Relish Kitchen can adapt its services to fit unusual venues.; Shamrock has been catering MICE events in Hong Kong since 1994.; Maidan can make its fare lighter, gluten-free or low-carb.